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Meet my teachers

April 2023 – This month, Inner Life goes to the backyard with Laura DeMaria. A member from L’Arche board of directors in the Washington area, Laura likes to sit with the small birds. This is how she nourishes her inner life.

There is a bird feeder in the back yard, and at all times it is filled to the brim with seeds and nuts. They come in the morning, pigeons waddling across the boards, robins and cardinals, finches and mockingbirds, asking with their eyes and beaks for a refill. They are there in the evening, knowing that they can gather and wait again for their fill which will assuredly come.

For me, the desire to sit with the back yard creatures started in 2020. During the depths of the pandemic, I began to keep a ready supply of shelled peanuts for the squirrels in my nearby park. At the end of the work-from-home day, I would suit up, animal feed in a plastic baggy, and sit with them. Day after day, I tried to beat my squirrel record; 13 was the most that would gather at any given time. My strong memories of the uncertainty of that time are punctuated with those quiet dusks spent with my numerous, white-bellied friends as they shook and cracked the peanuts I gave them. There were also the blue jays, warbling from the branches above, and suddenly diving down for the peanuts the squirrels missed.

Sitting and watching all this backyard activity is like observing an aquarium. The birds fly from the porch rails to the wood pile, to the feeder to the seed scattered on the ground. Mr. Cardinal is bold; Miss Pigeon is contemplative. The crows peer at us from the distance, and startle with the smallest movement. Inside the kitchen, the cats loll and purr, content and secure in their place in the household animal hierarchy.

Jesus said to His disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life-span? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?”

I do notice the ravens. I notice the chickadee flitting, its tiny heart beating in its chest, the activity and work of its life. I notice it does not necessarily stop to think: it just is.

When people ask me why I love L’Arche, I often point to this same quality: the emphasis on being. Do those in community love me because of my job, or where I live? No, they do not. And when I am at L’Arche, I can let go of the pretense that these things are me. Instead, I can just be.

And, is not God defined as pure beingness, itself? God is the great “I am.” He shows us there is a deep holiness in being oneself. Just as with birds. Take the cardinals, for example: their red is a pure expression of God. Their tiny feet curled around the perch, the largeness of some birds, the smallness of others: all as God intended. They try and be nothing but themselves. And I am mesmerized by it.

So, I bird watch. They’re my teachers. They don’t know it, of course. They just are. On the other side, I know it. I even write about it. This simple fact shows me that the way to “just be” is still ahead of me. One day, I’ll be.

Laura DeMaria.

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